Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky

Nat Gutman's Wife, Warsaw, 1938, by Roman Vishniac, © Mara Vishniac Kohn courtesy the International Center of Photography

Nat Gutman's Wife, Warsaw, 1938, by Roman Vishniac, © Mara Vishniac Kohn courtesy the International Center of Photography

Late last week, DIA staff finished the installation for the exhibition Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky which opened this past Sunday, April 19.  Sometimes for me, looking at photographs can be like stepping back into the past – or stepping into a time machine – I witness people who may no longer exist as well as the places where they once lived. This was exactly the experience I had when crates arrived at the DIA several weeks ago filled with 90 photographs from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. I saw first hand the work of Roman Vishniac, who photographed Jewish communities in Poland in the 1930s along with the work Jeff Gusky, who photographed remnants of those communities in the late 1990s. The images are powerful transmitters of traditions and history.

Before World War II, over 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland – their traditions, religion, and customs evolved and were preserved in the country for nearly five centuries. By the end of the 20th century, these communities had nearly vanished with their population diminishing to about 20,000 in recent years. Creating a very large visual record of this life, Roman Vishniac photographed the ghettos in Warsaw and Kazimierz as well in other cities in the 1930s. Gusky, although initially unaware of Vishniac’s extensive work in Poland, returned several decades later in the 1990s to capture the former ghettos, abandoned synagogues, and desecrated cemeteries, many which have been subject to neglect or vandalism. Although taken sixty years apart, their images share themes of memory, life, and loss. The photographs are evidence of people and places that once were, and what remains in their absence.

Corridor in Kazimierz, Former Jewish District, Cracow, 1996, by Jeffrey Gusky, © Jeffrey Gusky

Corridor in Kazimierz, Former Jewish District, Cracow, 1996, by Jeffrey Gusky, © Jeffrey Gusky

Photographs like those in Of Life and Loss preserve historical moments, memories and life experiences for future generations. This is largely due to the dedication of individual photographers who capture in-depth ordinary moments or nondescript places. In a photograph these encounters are transformed by personal perceptions, and we acquire the ability to see and experience life through the eyes of a photographer. We grasp some aspect of the world that had somehow escaped our attention.

To further enhance our audience’s experience at the DIA, there are listening stations in the gallery, where visitors can hear personal stories by individuals who have survived the Holocaust in Poland. The audio is courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus, in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In addition, just outside the gallery is a monitor and brochures where visitors can view photographic work made in response to this exhibition by local high school students.

Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky is on view through July 12 in the Albert and Peggy de Salle Gallery of Photography at the DIA. The exhibition is organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. In Detroit, the exhibition is sponsored by *Bill and Karen Davidson. 

*In blessed memory.

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